A recent study sponsored by the Hartford Seminary’s Institute for Religion Research reported a 74% jump in the number of Muslim Mosques in America since 2000. Only ten years ago, there were 1,209 mosques in the US, but that number grew to 2,016 by 2010. In response to the growth of Islam in the United States, Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) led a panel discussion entitled “Christian Ministry in the Shadow of the Mosque” at the school’s March 20, 2012 chapel service.
Illustrating the dramatic demographic change, which includes the appearance of mosques in rural areas, Mohler reported, “There are 31 mosques in the state of Alabama … the state of Texas has 156 mosques.” Because Islam is no longer only in a distant land far from home, but “in the cornfields,” Christians must learn how to engage with their Muslim neighbors, Mohler said. There is now a “Responsibility on the part of the Christian minister to have a knowledgeable understanding of Islam … it’s not just something missionaries need to know.”
Americans often do not notice the presence of Muslims because “Our Muslim neighbors want to protect themselves and insulate themselves from what they see as the dangers of Christian America,” explained Russell Moore, Dean of the School of Theology at SBTS. To many Muslims, the word “Christian” triggers images of American popular culture’s crassness and immorality. Moore shared how a Muslim man in Iraq, when asked ten years ago what he thought of when he heard the word “Christian,” answered “Britney Spears.” Moore explained, “Our Muslim neighbors are trying very hard to keep their families cohesive, their mosques cohesive, to be somewhat insulated from American culture as much as possible. Which means unless we are looking to be neighbors, we’re not going to know that they’re right around us.”
Even when Americans do recognize their Muslim neighbors, “A good many Christians, conservative Christians, have responded to the appearance of these mosques with, frankly, a denial of the very religious liberty that we claim for ourselves,” Mohler stated. “It’s complex these days,” he said, as “A mosque can be, and in some cases actually is, a mobilizing institution for Muslim extremism.” In light of this, “We have to separate that conversation, which is a legitimate law enforcement issue, from the religious liberty issue; which is that Muslims have the right to build a mosque … that is the very right that we quite literally depend upon … to build a church.”
When Christians say, “‘let’s’ utilize zoning laws in order to prevent mosques from being built,’” Russell Moore said, “what you’re doing is giving to Caesar a power that Caesar shouldn’t have, and that he is going to use ultimately against you … If the government of New York can decide where a mosque can be, then the government of New York can say ‘we’re not going to have a Baptist church within 150 yards of an abortion clinic,’ or for instance, ‘we’re not going to have a Southern Baptist church in the city of San Francisco. That will be turned against you.”
Separating the “religious liberty” and the “law enforcement” issues requires understanding what Islam really teaches, Mohler said. He stressed “One of the most important things for a lot of us to realize, is why does the mosque look like it does.” Mohler explained that “When Constantinople fell and when the Ottoman Empire was established in the new city, called Istanbul, one of the first things done was not only to convert the great churches [to mosques] … but to build minarets,” which were “raised by the sultans to dominate the skyline so that every citizen of Istanbul would wake up and know that it was a Muslim city.”
Although Muslims have so far kept a fairly low profile in America, Mohler pointed out that “Islam is a very present faith in terms of its public life … for instance, demographers in Western Europe are discussing the fact that if you reach a population that’s 15% Muslim, then Islam becomes a major part of the cultural conversation in a way that 15% of something else would not.”
Considering the future, which will undoubtedly include more Muslim neighbors, Moore told students, “You can either see Muslims as an enemy that we’ve got to completely eradicate from our sight, or we can see Muslims as people who are made in the image of God, that we want to see won to Christ. But you can’t do both at the same time.” Mohler agreed, and said Christians must learn to “Love our neighbors and share the Gospel whether the Muslim mosque is across the street or across the world.”